Emerging Concepts | June 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Food for the Road

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Danhi retains his day job while building the rolling business. So does Scott Baitinger, a partner in another truck that has cheese as a key ingredient.

Baitinger and pizza veteran Steve Mai operate Streetza in Milwaukee, a mobile pizza concept. The duo and a venture capital investor plan to expand by year-end to 17 trucks in 14 cities.

Streetza serves 16-inch pizzas for $21, or $3.75 by the slice. Many of the pies are based on Milwaukee culture, neighborhoods, and even Twitter followers.

The mascot race between innings of Brewers games at Miller Park provided the idea for the Brew Crew Sausage Race pizza, featuring Italian, Polish, and chorizo sausages; bratwurst; and hot dogs. “From day one that was a big hit,” Baitinger says.

As with many food trucks, Streetza uses a commissary to prepare items for its mobile menu. Crusts are par-baked before the truck leaves, and the final baking is done on board after the toppings are added.

Preparation is key for food trucks in Chicago, because the city prohibits cooking in them, says Matt Maroni, who runs Gaztro Wagon. He serves naan, the Southeast Asian flatbread, with meat, seafood, vegetables, and condiments.

Typical “naan-wiches” are wild boar belly, fig and bacon relish, fontina, sage, and brussels sprouts for $9 or warm lobster, bacon, potato and leek hash, and brie for $12.

“Our food is definitely American, but it’s often based on foods from the street in countries around the world,” Maroni says.

Early morning prep is required for The Cinnamon Snail, a northern New Jersey truck that often visits New York. Its breakfast and lunch menus focus on vegan, organic items.

Owner and chef Adam Sobel often rises at 2 a.m. to make pastries in time for the breakfast rush. His menu includes a Santa Fe, New Mexico, favorite, blue cornmeal pancakes with pine nuts for $8, and a breakfast burrito with scrambled tofu for $7.

“We change our menu relatively often and seasonally,” Sobel says.

Technomic’s Higar says breakfast is a growing food truck favorite, as are desserts.

Indian spiced mini doughnuts were the first items sold in 2008 by Chef Shack, which has grown to three trucks in the Minneapolis area. The trucks now feature a diverse menu, from grass-fed beef hot dogs to squash blossom quesadillas.

The trucks operate May through October, when locally sourced ingredients are available, says co-owner Carrie Summer. Besides, winter is too cold for people to wait in line.

The owners use the down time “to get away to try different cuisines from around the world,” says Summer, who talked by phone from India, home of her favorite food and spices. She brings that knowledge to her menu in several dishes, including curries.

The interest in mobile desserts is the reason Marisa Lown, owner of Seattle specialty baker The Radical Cupcake, is retrofitting an old Airstream trailer into a food truck.

Lown says her organic, allergen-free, and often-vegan baked goods can easily expand into a traveling format.

“We will offer a daily rotation of cupcake flavors, one or two types of cookies, cake of the day, and more,” she says. “People can tell us what they want.”

Lown is among many chefs expanding from a fixed location to a rolling one.

“More restaurants are going mobile, and many others are thinking about it,” says Mobi Munch’s Villaman.

Some quick-service restaurants have had mobile units for years for catering or marketing.

Arby’s Mobile Kitchen is now in its third incarnation. The tractor-trailer has a full kitchen making free food samples at dozens of events. It has meat slicers and milkshake mixers to help make the company’s original roast beef sandwiches and jamocha shakes.

“There is no better form of advertising,” says John Gray, senior vice president of corporate communications and public relations at Arby’s.

Carl’s Jr.’s Star Diners are tricked-out lunch trucks—eight in all—used mainly for events. This year, one was dispatched to Houston to help promote the company’s first unit in that city, says Beth Mansfield, CKE Restaurants’ director of public relations.

Gold Star Chili went a step further. The Cincinnati chain’s Chilimobile makes catering and promotional stops, but it also operates as a retail food truck, selling its core menu items: cheese coneys and three-way chili (spaghetti, chili sauce, and shredded cheese).

“We see it as a brand differentiator,” says marketing director Charlie Howard. “It’s a multiple threat—a sales and marketing opportunity.”

Some traditional restaurants have even added street food to their menu.

California Tortilla, a mid-Atlantic fast-casual Mexican chain, introduced a Korean barbecue taco as a limited-time offer. The steak and kimchi item was so popular that the company is considering whether to put it on the menu full time.

“It has a great, bold, intense flavor,” says Keith Goldman, vice president of operations.

Meanwhile, several truck operators, including Kogi, have parlayed their trucks into fixed restaurants.

“This is a more recent development,” says Kyle Johnson, who runs Food Truck Fiesta, a website that tracks food trucks in the Washington, D.C., area.

Some chefs “have stated in the past that they preferred to open brick-and-mortar restaurants, but the economy was preventing them from obtaining a bank loan,” Johnson says. As a result, they “resorted to opening a food truck instead.”

He predicted more food truck owners would open restaurants in an improved economy.

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